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Urban infill case study: 1234 Howard Street in San Francisco

Urban infill developments can be tough. The sites are often small and/or narrow and that creates a lot of design challenges. Access to light is a common problem.

But constraints can also be beautiful, because they have a way of forcing creativity. 

When I was in architecture school, I used to find it easier to work when I was given constraints and challenges. It gave me something to latch onto, as opposed to just starting with a blank canvas. A big part of design, at least for me, is about solving problems. So give me a problem to solve!

One of the ways that architects and designers often deal with the access to light problem is by carving out lightwells or courtyards to bring light down into the building. This can be used when you have a deep site or when you’re building right up against the property line and you can’t have any windows.

One project that I’ve always liked for this reason – as well as the fact that it’s beautifully designed – is 1234 Howard Street in San Francisco. It looks like this from above:


The site is 50′ x 165′ and it spans an entire block. 

In order to get lots of light into all of the units, the architects (Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects) split the site up into 3 “bars”, each of which would be somewhere around 16′ x 165′. The middle “bar” was then dedicated to a courtyard that cuts through the entire building.


The two flanking bars were then further subdivided into 2 units per bar, which translates into 4 units per floor x 4 floors. The ground floor is just common areas and parking.

The advantage of this design strategy is that the apartments now have windows running the length of the courtyard, where as typically on narrow deep lots you would end up with “bowling alley” units and windows just on one end.

The disadvantage of this design strategy is that you’re now just over 16′ away from seeing what your neighbor is eating for dinner, among other things. 

But with the right window coverings, I’m sure we’d all survive in these apartments with their Bulthaup kitchens and Miele appliances.


I love seeing creative solutions to tight urban sites. And one of the things that I worry about, with things like the Mid-Rise Performance Standards here in Toronto, is that we’re reducing or even eliminating the possibility for these kinds of creative solutions.

I recognize that 1234 Howard is not the same as an avenue mid-rise site in Toronto with low-rise residential behind it. But the thought still crossed my mind as I was writing this piece.

All photos via Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects Inc.

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